Belgica Review: A fresh look at the idea of living the dream.
From Oscar nominated director Felix van Groeningen, comes a new film about two brothers who decide to start a bar together. As the bar grows in popularity, Frank’s (Tom Vermeir) life begins to change as he adapts from family man to bar owner. It doesn’t take long before Frank becomes addicted to the lifestyle of drinking, drugs, and sex while his wife Isabelle (Charlotte Vandermeersch) and son are left feeling abandoned. Frank’s brother Jo (Stef Aerts), on the other hand, is just trying to keep the bar financially stable while trying to convey to his girlfriend Marieke (Hélène De Vos) that he is serious about their relationship and wants to have a child with her.
Belgica is the 5th feature length film from Groeningen and my first experience with him as a filmmaker. I went into Belgica not quite sure what to expect. While watching the film there was a lot that I liked about it but there were some other things that felt very repetitive or rushed. I think for a story about living your dream and showing the consequences of adapting to a particular lifestyle, Belgica really understands and embraces the concept even if it is done with some flaws.
With that being said, Belgica is essentially a character study of Frank and Jo. In the beginning, Frank is this wholesome family man with a lovely wife and young son. On the surface, it seems like Frank should be happy with his life but the truth is he is still chasing a dream. As he begins to follow his dream, his life starts to spiral out of control, which ultimately turns him into this careless and violent addict. As this begins to happen his brother Jo must step in and try to keep everything going. Jo, who is dealing with his own problems, must be the voice of reason while keeping the bar running and dealing with his own relationship woes.
The moments that I felt really worked best in Belgica are the ones that were the intense and rather violent. There are several scenes involving Frank losing his cool while working at the bar that really stood out and felt incredibly raw. The two scenes in particular include a scene involving Frank and a girl named Nikki who works at the bar and another involving Frank and a fight in an alleyway behind the bar. These two scenes are two of the more brutal ones in the film and really capture how Frank is starting to truly lose control due to his addiction to drugs and drinks.
In addition to the intense and violent moments, there are also several verbal fight scenes that pack an emotional punch. These scenes showcase how talented these actors are and what they can bring to the table. Most of these scenes occur in the film’s second half and involve Jo basically trying to give Frank a wake up call. However, the fight scenes between Frank and his wife Isabella were my favorites. There is one that standouts among the rest and it’s a scene where Frank sniffs cocaine while holding his newborn baby. The raw emotion that comes from Vandermeersch in this scene is nothing short of spectacular.
While there is so much to admire about Belgica, I just couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed with the film as a whole. Many would label Belgica as a “slow burn” but that wasn’t what bugged me about it. What bothered me was that there were way too many sex, drug, and club music montages that after a while it just felt unnecessary and redundant. The first 15 to 20 minutes of the story gives the audience an introduction into the lives of Frank and Jo before the bar becomes a reality. Once that happens the next 60-75 is spent showing Frank and Jo doing drugs, drinking, and having sex with a few great emotional or violent moments thrown into the mix.
Belgica could have easily been about 20-30 minutes shorter and the impact would have been just as effective. In fact, editing the film down would have resulted in a much tighter film and essentially helped with the pacing so it didn’t feel as drawn out as it did. It almost feels like this is the director’s cut of the film due to time constraints for it to premiere at Sundance.
I must mention that the ending of this film could go either way for people and is open to interpretation. I interpreted the ending the same way as most others did following the premiere. It seemed as though almost everyone I talked to was in agreement that the conclusion was rushed and unrealistic. It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel room and I talked about the ending with my good friend and fellow critic Fred Topel, where his take was much different than mine. He believes that when a certain moment occurs near the end, Frank is actually dreaming for the rest of the film. My thoughts were clearly not the same as I took what happened at face value and felt that the ending was very underwhelming and lacked believability. In my eyes, the entire film leading up to this point was so raw and honest that this ending felt too perfect for its own good.
Based on talking to a lot of people after seeing the film, I think the vast majority of viewers will interpret the ending the same way I did but after hearing this other interpretation, I now wonder which ending the director wanted audiences to interpret. Either way, I still think the ending wasn’t strong enough and still felt rushed either way. If the ending was supposed to be interpreted the way that Fred suggested, it is a much better conclusion but still not entirely clear.
All in all, Belgica was a solid opening night film and a good way to kick off Sundance 2016. While it isn’t the most pleasant watch, it is a raw and emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t beat around the bush while showing the effects of becoming an addict. The performances here are all top notch and the direction really captures these lives in a simple yet honest way. While the film could use a bit more editing and maybe a better-structured ending, I do believe that Groeningen is a filmmaker to keep an eye on and I look forward to seeing what he does in the near future.
MovieManMenzel’s final rating for Belgica is a 7 out of 10.